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Cisco becomes a major Linux server vendor overnight

Cisco is using its dominance in network router gear to make a strong play for the heart of Linux-based server computing.

In the battle for supremacy among the software industry's Big Four, Cisco may be placing the biggest bets and angling for the biggest returns. Some still think of Cisco as a networking hardware vendor, but hardware is simply Cisco's beachhead into others' turf, similar to how Microsoft (desktop), Oracle (database), and IBM (everything) are using core strengths to move into adjacent markets.

If anyone needed further confirmation of Cisco's software aspirations, its forays into Linux offer a strong hint.

In what might have looked like a publicity stunt around a $100,000 prize for Linux developers, Cisco's Linux development contest was actually a major clue as to just how serious it is about becoming a leading server vendor with a global development community--and soon.

Today, Cisco announced the winners of its "Think Inside the Box" contest. The three winning applications are very interesting, but the bigger story here is what Cisco's contest just demonstrated:

Most of Cisco's 7 million installed Integrated Services Routers (ISRs) are now servers, for all intents and purposes.

The contest proved that server-side Linux developers who know C/C++, Java, or Python can now write applications to Cisco routers with little or no knowledge of routers. (Remember: the finalists only had 90 days to write their applications).

That's a development community of millions, folks. Overnight.

Still think Cisco is a hardware company? By fostering a developer ecosystem around its core router family of products, Cisco just made its hardware solutions much more valuable to its customers (and increased the stickiness of its customer relationships), and turned its routers into a big target development platform for developers.

I wrote about Cisco's contest last June as Cisco's way of paying developers to stick a finger in the Microsoft eye with a $100,000 bounty for writing Linux-based applications for its AXP (Application Extension Platform).

I clearly underestimated Cisco's ambitions.

This is doubly clear when correlated with another Cisco announcement this week about its new and expanded Cisco Developer Network, which SearchNetworking covered.

Cisco is serious about software and fostering a global developer community. As I argued in my "Software's Big Four" blog, each of these companies is entering new markets from incumbent positions of strength, unlike HP and SAP (which both have big software businesses), which are largely sticking to existing businesses.

Millions of Cisco routers already sit in data centers and branch offices around the world. They consume less power than servers. They have a smaller footprint. They're more secure. And they enable a class of applications that Cisco calls "network-aware." Just slot in an AXP blade hosting an application.

Basically routers are much smarter now, and with the right applications can be used to take control of your phones at night to monitor for burglars; manage HVAC, water, and power in your office; deliver advertising in your retail store; and much, much more.

There are two things Cisco still lacks, however, in order to make an unimpeachable bid for developers. First, it needs to move off Broadcom chips for its ISRs and add x86 chips to the mix, something that I'm hearing rumblings may well be on the way.

Second, as impressive as Cisco's outreach to Linux developers has been, the company also needs to support Microsoft's .Net/Windows developers. It's too big a market to ignore.

If Cisco can deliver on x86 and to Microsoft developers--and I think it just might--Cisco will have opened its router (server) family to an even larger development community than the already large Linux market, further blurring the distinction between routers and general-purpose servers.

The result? A formidable software company that sprouted out of a dominant hardware company. How would Oracle, Microsoft, and IBM react?

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.